I think that, when we look back at this decade twenty years from now, it will be known as the decade of the dystopias. I don’t know what it is – terrorism, reduced privacy due to facebook, natural resources running it or just the worldwide success of Katniss Everdeen – but dystopias are in. Wool, divergent, Hunger Games – they all spell doom with a capital D yet land cozily in the department of popcorn cinema.
So it should come as no surprise I was very interested to see Snowpiercer. For those not in the loop: Planned as yet another one of the above movies, YYY Harvey Weinstein demanded director XXX to cut thirty minutes from his feature. The two parties gave each other a well-meant middle finger and both went their seperate ways. So now, instead of being a big turd that reels in a lot of cash, it’d be a big gem that reels in … well, you get it.
Based loosely on a French comic book from the eighties I’m sure everyone pretends to have read, Snowpiercer tells the story of a group of people on a train. The catch: It’s the train containing the last bits of civilization after the entire world froze over. And it’s also – you guessed it – a place with class differences, where everyone has its place – the rich kids in the front, the poor one in the back. The premise of the movie is deviously simple (and amazingly exciting): The poor kids fight their way to the front of the train.
I’m amazed Snowpiercer pulled this story off. It sounds like one of those premises that sounds cool, but ends up shooting yourself in the foot. But no: The trip through the train action-filled, exciting, and an amazing discovery of the world to boot. It reminded me, in a way, of Bioshock, where a lot of the underwater city’s history is told on the side.
It’s interesting Weinstein wanted to cut thirty minutes of the not-exactly-gargantuan 126 minute feature. As he wanted to make the movie into a straightforward action flick, I’m pretty sure a lot of the world-building elements would have been doomed. And – to be entirely honest – I can’t exactly blame him.
I mean he is entirely and utterly wrong! But I still can’t blame him. He rightly identified a glaring problem with the movie: The world does not live. The reason we watch these dystopian futures is to see how they work. In Hunger Games, half of the fun is finding out how decadent the people living in the capital are, and the perversions they face every day. These people cut out people’s tongues, they have reinstalled the vomatorium, they watch people get killed for fun! They’re obviously savages – but (and that’s a Kudos for Hunger Games) they don’t know any better.
By the time our backseaters enter the posh compartments of the world they want to belong to so badly, they’re in such a hurry the fronties are reduced to mannequins. They literally run past them, ignoring them. We find out nothing of life in front of the train – a life we want to learn about so badly. Sure, we learn about the train, and about his creator-slash-machinist… But we never find out whether the guys in the back were right about their dreams of the front.
It’s not hard to notice this problem. It creates a lopsidedness in the story, and ultimately makes the world-building element that is so important in fantasy and sci-fi fail. The world becomes stale and unbelievable. It’s not exactly a stretch to decide to cut it right out. Have some explanatory voice-overs at the start of the movie about how this world works, and then just make an action flick out of it.
Only then you’d have the mastodon of a fiasco that was the Golden Compass. Where the book left you room to explore the world – a parallel world to ours where every person is followed by a sort of spirit animal – the movie just tells you what it is right away. This robbed Golden Compass of its world, too, because there was nothing left to discover.
(Of course, that movie did other things wrong, like cutting the fucking ending entirely.)
Here’s the thing with Snowpiercer. It doesn’t ask for thirty minutes less. It desperately begs for thirty minutes more. I want more details, more characters, more world – there’s a reason these types of movies usually last over two hours!
This turned into quite a rant. If this gives the impresson you should avoid this movie at all costs, please guess again! Snowpiercer is an interesting movie in a great setting, with plots twists and an unlikely concept it pulls off wonderfully. It’s a very tough movie, one that dares to show fantasy violence in a realistic manner, and it doesn’t beat around the bush in this horribleness.
It is, in all aspects, a movie about courage. Both in its story and outside.
Little update: I think this trailer gets the story across much better than the actual film does. Fascinating!